State officials can punish an individual for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), even if they are unable to prove the accused was ever behind the wheel, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The decision came in the case of Eric R. Cain who was found lying passed out on in front of his car on Route 19 by Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Cole at around 2:30am on June 2, 2007. The car had been safely parked and there was no key in the ignition.
Cole arrested Cain for DUI after a breath test estimated Cain’s blood alcohol level at .15. Six days later, the state filed an order revoking Cain’s driver’s license for a full year. In addition, Cain was ordered to pay a number of fees, including the costs an alcohol education program. Cain appealed the administrative order, and a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) employee found him guilty. Cain appealed that judgment to circuit court Judge David Janes who overturned the DMV decision because the state could not prove Cain did not get drunk after he parked his car. The high court disagreed with Janes, asserting that state law allows police officers to impose certain forms of punishment based solely on reasonable suspicion that a crime may have taken place.
“All that is required to seek a license revocation under West Virginia Code Section 17C-5A-2 is that the arresting officer have ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that the defendant committed the offense of DUI,” Justice Thomas E. McHugh wrote for the court. “Rather than requiring an arresting officer to witness a motor vehicle in the process of being driven, the statute requires only that the observations of the arresting officer establish a reasonable basis for concluding that the defendant had operated a motor vehicle upon a public street in an intoxicated state.”
Judge Janes had ruled that the arresting officer was obligated to identify specific facts and evidence that give rise to a reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed. Cain did not testify in his own defense at the administrative hearing, leaving no direct evidence that Cain had been driving while drunk. The supreme court ruled that the burden was properly on Cain to prove his innocence.
“The record is devoid of any factual basis for the arresting officer to believe that Mr. Cain consumed the alcohol he acknowledged drinking only after he parked the vehicle,” Justice McHugh wrote. “The applicable burden of proof at a license revocation proceeding is ‘proof by a preponderance of the evidence.’ By citing the fact that Mr. Cain did not testify or present evidence on his behalf, the hearing examiner was not wrongly shifting the burden of proof to the appellee. Instead, the examiner was merely recognizing that the only evidence before him was the testimonial evidence of the arresting officer and the documentary evidence provided through the DUI Information sheet.”
The supreme court reversed the circuit court ruling. A copy of the decision is available in a 70k PDF file at the source link below.